Issue 119:2017 09 07:Kim Jong-un v President Xi (Neil Tidmarsh)

07 September 2017

Kim Jong-un v. President Xi

Is Pyongyang shouting at Beijing rather than Washington?

By Neil Tidmarsh

Two days ago, the North Korean ambassador to the UN in Geneva said that his country’s recent weapons test was “a gift package addressed to none other than the US”.  But could this statement be just another rhetorical smokescreen, a coded message which the intended but unstated recipient was meant to understand by reading between the lines?  After all, it was Chinese territory which was shaken by tremors following the earthquake caused by last Sunday’s hydrogen bomb explosion, and Chinese scientists who scrambled to monitor radiation levels along China’s border (a leak of nuclear material is a distinct possibility, as one of the tunnels in which the test took place may have collapsed).

Consider the timing of the explosion.  It couldn’t have come at a more embarrassing moment for President Xi.  He was hosting the ninth annual BRICS summit.  President Michel Temer of Brazil, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa were his guests in Xiamen.  The hydrogen bomb explosion coincided with the summit’s opening, and it must have dominated the three days of its proceedings.  It certainly eclipsed it in the world’s media, taking over the headlines around the globe.

Consider the timing of other missile tests.  On May 14, President Xi hosted the Belt and Road forum, attended by 70 countries eager to hear about his massively ambitious plan to open new trade routes between East and West; North Korea carried out a ballistic missile test on the very same day.  And on April 4, North Korea launched a medium-range ballistic missile which reached the Sea of Japan – just as President Xi was meeting President Trump in Florida for the US-China summit at Mar-a-Lago.

The world is looking to China to do something about its increasingly rogue protégé, ally and neighbour; is that why Kim Jong-un seems so determined to defy President Xi and to show that China has no more power over Pyongyang than does the USA?

Here in the West we may be fixated with President Trump’s flounderings and with the apparently insoluble conundrum which North Korea has set the USA, but J R Thomas is right (see Beware The Loon in this issue of Shaw Sheet): ‘in reality North Korea is more of a problem to China than it is to the USA’.  In the first place, the world believes that China, not the USA, holds the keys to unlocking the problem; and in the second, the situation poses greater dangers to China than it does to the USA.  Nuclear strikes, conventional armed conflict, regime change or societal collapse on his doorstep are all nightmare scenarios for President Xi.  Even the arms race which the crisis appears to be triggering (his regional rivals South Korea and Japan are now clamouring for greater defensive capabilities, and the USA will no doubt be happy to help them) must be a serious head-ache for him.  China already has three nuclear-armed neighbours (four, if you count North Korea): Russia, Pakistan and India.  It certainly doesn’t want Japan and South Korea to join the list.

Much has been made of the possibility that Kim Jong-un is mindful to the point of paranoia about the USA’s role in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and President Saddam Hussein in Iraq; but perhaps he is even more worried and threatened by Chinese expansionism.  He may be a protégé and client of Beijing, but empires – especially centralised, expanding empires – have a habit of swallowing or absorbing their clients and protégés sooner or later (as proved by the Romans in Britain, and by the British in India).  Translation is difficult, but it sounds like he’s saying “I’m not your puppet, and if you try stringing me up I’ll poke Uncle Sam and that will bring him stomping into your backyard and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping over your doorstep.”

Beijing, by all accounts, has come to loathe its troublesome neighbour.  It supports Pyongyang economically and politically in order to keep the Korean peninsula divided and maintain the North as a buffer against US influence and to keep US troops away from its border; but that doesn’t mean that it respects or values the regime in its own right.  Indeed, President Xi (surprisingly and tellingly, eager as he is to meet the leaders of other countries that come into China’s orbit) has never met Kim Jong-un.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see what Beijing, any more than Washington, can do to bring the Great Leader to heel.  On the face of it, North Korea is completely dependent on China economically; but President Xi is struggling to find a way to convert that dependence into control.  Economic sanctions  simply provoke greater defiance.  Beijing has recently banned imports of coal, metal ores and seafood from North Korea, and has banned North Koreans from starting up new businesses or expanding existing businesses in China, but like other sanctions this appears to have encouraged rather than discouraged even more bad behaviour from Pyongyang.  China could go further and cut off supplies of oil, food and other essentials to North Korea, but that would be to risk the instability, collapse and chaos which it is eager to avoid on its borders.

But it will have to come up with something within the next six weeks. That’s when the 19th National Communist Party Congress starts in Beijing.  The eyes of the world will be on China, as key positions and policies are sorted out at the very highest level.  Kim Jong-un must have the date marked in his diary and another spectacular surprise planned to spoil President Xi’s party yet again.

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